Title contenders blow it

This season just seems destined to provide excitement. The Hungarian Grand Prix is usually among the most boring races of the year. The tight and twisty configuration would make it tough to overtake anyway. But the geography of the Hungaroring, which is situated in a natural bowl near Budapest, means that all the dust from the city descends upon the circuit.

This means that even after a weekend of practice sessions and support races, drivers must keep to the racing line like a slot car or risk getting bogged down. The dust problem is so bad that the dirty side of the track is so dirty that it is often, perversely, advantageous to start from 3rd or 5th on the grid than 2nd.

No-one told that to Heikki Kovalainen. The Finn started 2nd on the grid but went on to win the race. However, his start was poor. You might suspect in the back of your mind that Felipe Massa was aiming to start 3rd on the grid rather than 2nd. What was surprising about the Brazilian’s start was not that he passed Kovalainen, as this was to be expected. But he got a superior start to widely-fancied pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton panicked as his mirrors filled with red. The Brit went to the inside to try and defend his position into the first corner. But this only meant that he got bogged down in the dust. Massa, after getting a bit of a slipstream from Hamilton, stuck more closely to the cleaner racing line and had superior grip into turn 1.

Massa’s move was incredible for its bravery and aggressiveness. Massa threw caution to the wind but appeared to have it all under control the whole way through. He smartly forced Hamilton onto the dirty side of the track, knowing that even if Hamilton maintained the lead into turn 1, the Brit would get worse traction and would also be on the outside for turn 2. Massa the mediocre driver continues to show flashes of brilliance.

What was even more surprising was that Massa began to pull away from the McLarens. This was supposed to be a McLaren walkover. McLarens are meant to suit tight and twisty circuits, and this certainly wasn’t going to plan.

I read a good theory which is that the old wheelbase explanation — whereby Ferraris suit circuits with fast, sweeping corners while McLarens prefer twisty circuits — no longer cuts it. As Ferrari moved to a shorter wheelbase and McLaren moved to a longer wheelbase configuration, this seems to make sense. After all, McLaren were dominant at Silverstone which is a pretty fast circuit with long, sweeping corners. Now Ferrari have (or at least Massa has) excelled in Hungary.

Instead, we should look to the weather as an explanation. McLaren prefer cooler conditions, whereas Ferrari cope better in the heat. If that theory is true, I guess, therefore, that McLaren should be worried that the remaining European races take place in the height of summer, with the other non-European races taking part in hot places like Singapore and China.

Things went from bad to worse for Hamilton as a puncture towards the end of his second stint thwarted what little hope he had of catching Massa. The puncture developed on turn 1 of the circuit, meaning that Hamilton had to go round the whole circuit with it. He lost a lot of time and emerged from the pitlane in 10th place. Moreover, he was the first driver in the entire field to make his second stop and had to spend 28 laps on the softer tyres which don’t suit the McLaren.

Nonetheless, Hamilton was able to move up the standings as people in front of him pitted. In the circumstances, a salvaged 5th position is not a bad result. However, it bodes badly for Lewis Hamilton’s ongoing tyre management issues. Just when I thought he had got over his tyre problems, another Hamilton tyre has popped. This is clearly Hamilton’s Achilles’ heel. Having said that Bridgestone’s initial assessment is that the tyre damage may have been caused by debris.

Despite the bad result though, Hamilton has, somewhat perversely, extended his lead in the Drivers Championship. Because while Hamilton’s race was bad, Massa’s was even worse. Nothing to do with the Brazilian’s driving, which was about as great as I have ever seen it. But, agonisingly, Massa’s Ferrari engine blew just two laps from the end. You could see how distraught he was as he emerged from his car, which came to a stop on the pit straight, and walked around the pitlane like a headless chicken.

I am no fan of Massa or Ferrari, but you had to feel sorry for him. Massa should have had this race wrapped up, and he was robbed. I’ll give you that about the Hungaroring — at least it springs the odd surprise in the form of sudden retirements from the lead. Who could forget Damon Hill in 1997 or Fernando Alonso in 2006?

So Hamilton’s blown tyre and Massa’s blown engine meant that McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen became the unexpected victor. I don’t think Kovalainen deserved to win this particular race. But to win a race you need both a reliable car and the good driving skills, and Kovalainen had the best balance of that today — even though his race was rather anonymous.

The likeable Finn will be a popular winner. It is also this season’s second new winner after Kubica took the chequered flag in Canada. Kovalainen will enter the record books as the 100th driver to win an F1 Grand Prix.

Special mention should go to Timo Glock. Following his heavy crash in Germany two weeks ago, Glock has bounced back in the strongest way possible. He was looking good throughout practice and qualifying. He outshone team mate Jarno Trulli and had the measure of Räikkönen’s Ferrari at the end of the race.

Renault also had an excellent race which suggests that they are coming back into form. Alonso finished 4th, not too far behind Räikkönen. Meanwhile, Piquet continued his strong run by finishing 6th. There is no doubt about it. After an immensely difficult start to the season, Nelsinho Piquet has put the jitters behind him and is now performing well.

It’s amazing to think that just a few races ago Renault were struggling to keep Honda at bay in the Constructors Championship. The Enstone-based team have more than doubled their overall points haul in just two races.

Toyota and Renault are currently the two teams on the up in the intense midfield battle. Red Bull were alarmingly off-key in Hungary. They were not in contention for a decent points finish at all in Hungary, which is unusual for Red Bull this year. The team today slipped from 4th to 6th place in the Constructors Championship at the expense of Toyota and Renault.

Meanwhile, BMW should be looking for answers in response to their alarming drop in form. Kubica qualified well but simply did not have the pace in the race, managing to score just one point. Meanwhile, Nick Heidfeld was absolutely nowhere all weekend and never placed higher than 10th. For a team that was second in the Constructors Championship until today, this is quite a disaster. Let’s hope it’s because they are concentrating on 2009.

There is a three week break now. Next up is the European Grand Prix at the brand new Valencia street circuit. By that time you might notice something else new as well…

3 comments

  1. An intriguing cliff-hanger!

    I know everyone had a lot of sympathy for Massa but Glock was the driver of the day for me. He beat a Ferrari on merit in a Toyota. Damn good job.